Donna Wayman of Merced is an accomplished local artist, but she never imagined her passion would one day reach out nearly 3,000 miles across this great nation, and touch the hearts of “New York City’s Bravest” firefighters and their family members who lost loved ones during and after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Not only that, Wayman and her husband Bill Maurer recently returned from a dream trip to the Big Apple where current and retired members of the FDNY treated her like a guest of honor on one of their most special days.
Incredibly, this meaningful relationship began with a pure chance encounter back in January of 2018.
Wayman was painting portraits of cars at the Barrett Jackson Car Show in Scottsdale, Arizona, when a man approached her. The man happened to be Tony Marden, a New York firefighter during 9/11 and a 13-year coach of the FDNY’s “New York’s Bravest” football team.
“This is really hard for me to talk about,” Wayman remembers Marden saying, “but I’ve been wanting to get a painting done of 24 of the guys on the firefighter’s football team who died on 9/11, and others who passed because of it.”
Wayman continues, “He told me I was the one he had been looking for to do this painting. I was honored, and of course, said that I would do it — no second thought.”
While Wayman is no stranger to portraits, this was a unique project to tackle. She, of course, had done portraits before; celebrity portraits, car portraits, and remarkable paintings that would leave anyone in awe.
But, this was different. A memorial piece to honor the bravest of men. From the beginning, Wayman was determined to create a work of art that would honor the firemen as they were alive.
“Tony started sending me pictures of all the men,” she remembers. “A lot of them were little tiny pictures in black and white. No color, no skin tone. I needed more …”
An exchange of emails quickly developed between Marden and Wayman; exchanges of names, pictures, stories, and words that would mark the beginning of a blooming friendship.
“He wanted them all in their football uniforms,” Wayman recalls. “And so of course I started googling them for more information.”
Wayman proceeded to compile a binder full of information on each one of the firefighters. Laminated page upon page full of biographies, written detail on the 9/11 accounts that took the lives of some, and the toxic aftermath that would eventually take the lives of the others. Pictures and family information. An entire timeline full of personality and characteristics.
“I like to get to know the person while I’m painting the portrait,” she says. “Because of 9/11, I was able to find all the information I needed to know. … Some of them were so funny. One of them played the bagpipes, some had other jobs. Other things they did in their lives. Most of them knew they wanted to be fireman since they were kids. I learned a lot about fireman. I have so much more respect for them now. It’s not just a job.”
Before Wayman could even begin painting the men; however, she first had to pick the right canvas for the job.
“Picking the right canvas out is a whole other story,” she recalls. “I was looking through my canvases and at the very corner I saw this stack of canvases that went through a fire when my house burned. I went over and looked down at a 20 x 36 canvas a company had sent me. It was perfect, except for some black smoke on the back. I cleaned it up and took it off. This was the perfect canvas for the painting as it had survived a fire.”
Aside from including the men in their football uniforms, Marden had asked Wayman to include some specific FDNY fire engines, the Statue of Liberty, and the Twin Towers as they were before the attacks.
Wayman put these images to canvas along with a flag draped across the background of the painting. The flag of the fire department. Black and white lines for the deceased, and a red line representing the firefighters.
“This is a celebration of these men,” Wayman says of her resulting portrait, “not a devastation of these men.”
“It was a hard painting to do because each of these men — there’s just something different about firefighters. They are the bravest, kind-hearted people. Every single one of them. You read their stories, and the things they’ve done, and I’m in tears trying to get through these paintings. … They’re my guys.”
The names on the canvas are: Pat Lyons, Andre Fletcher, Brian Bircher, Tom Haskell, Dan Suhr, Tom Cullen, Tarel Coleman, John Florio, John Bergen, Darrel Pearsall, Mike Cawley, Sal Calabro, Tom Mingione, Chuck Margiotta, Chris Sullivan, Pete Bilefield, Dan O’Callahan, Tim Stackpole, Steve Belson, Tom Foley, Keith Glascoe, Billy Johnston, Woody Mchale, Pudgie Walsh and Dan Foley.
They are among the 343 FDNY members who were killed on 9/11, and among more than 227 who have died from 9/11-related illnesses after the attacks.
When Marden first saw the portrait, he absolutely loved it, according to Wayman.
“He cried when he saw it,” she says.
This past June, more than three years after she first met Marden, Wayman was invited out to New York to present her “911 Heroes” painting and meet the loved ones of those she portrayed on the canvas. She was also treated to a tour of the city’s Fire Academy where the painting will hang, the FDNY Marine Division, and the 9/11 Museum.
“The museum was sold out for the day, but since we were with Tony, we got in,” Wayman explains. “They let families of those lost on 9/11 always get in and for free. Tony lost his cousin on 9/11. He was a firefighter too. Tony worked seven days a week with the firefighters digging through the rubble to find bodies. It took him eight months to find his cousin. He showed us the exact spot where they found him. It was a very emotional tour. Seeing the photos on the wall of the men I painted was like seeing my family up there on that wall. The twisted steal beams, the smashed firetrucks, the movies of the buildings falling, the photos and faces of the survivors. I’ll never forget it.”
Wayman won’t likely forget another big highlight of her trip.
She was also invited to the 48th annual Fun City Bowl football game — a major grudge match between New York’s Bravest firefighters and New York’s Finest police officers at the landmark Met Life Stadium. It was a significant game because it marked 20 years since the 9/11 tragedy.
And to top it off, the Bravest team won, 20 to 14.
The firefighters presented Wayman with a plague to thank her for the painting of their fallen colleagues and team members. The football team and alumni also invited her to stand with them as they took an annual photo in front of an antique fire truck.
Says Wayman, “I’m honored that I got to do this painting and that it will help to keep the memory alive of these men who gave their all to save others. The heroes of 9/11 should never be forgotten.”